"So will Oliver be able to stay with you?"
The question was so far from anything I had ever thought about that it took me a second to realize what she was talking about.
"Um. Yeah. I mean I can't imagine him being anywhere else."
But she hadn't yet met Oliver, that would come the next day. And the question was an honest one and based on what she knew about autism. I was helping to host her family while they stayed in our town, her husband working on a project with my colleagues. Their two girls were exactly the same age as my two boys and so when I found out they would be accompanying him I offered to show them around, share some toys and for our kids to play together. We exchanged e-mails prior to the visit and, although I rarely talk about Oliver's autism to those whom I don't know well, I found myself typing out the words: "my son has autism." Just like that. No further explanation.
Her reply surprised me. She told me that her brother, who died 4 years earlier, also had autism. He had other health issues that made it difficult for them to keep him at home and so, at the age of seven, he went to live in an institution. In another country.
There was a time in my life when I would have felt that I could pass judgement on those two points. That time has certainly passed.
When we met at the tea shop that morning my children were at home and I spent the hour trading stories and secrets and jokes with her young one who is Oliver's same exact age. I couldn't take my eyes from her. I threw all my energies into not thinking about how I wished to know my own child in the same way.
The next day we met at a beautiful park with hiking trails and a lake where we go often to walk and feed the ducks. We took a picnic lunch and the children and sat on a blanket under a shade tree eating grilled cheese sandwhiches. I felt relaxed in her company because I knew she understood and because I knew she wouldn't pass judgement and because I knew she could see how beautiful he is. And when she said: "You're doing a really good job with him." I knew she meant that too.
I cautiously asked her about Ben, the brother who had died. He didn't talk much and couldn't tell them exactly what was wrong when he began to feel the pain. He was admitted to the hospital too late and by the time they found the cause it had already killed him. He loved to swim. He loved to sit in a room full of moving lights. She wished she had known him better. As she spoke she couldn't take her eyes from Oliver. And then it was too hard for her to talk about anymore.
Our conversation lapsed as we sat there, two near strangers in silent understanding.
I will never forget Ben, though I never met him. And I will never forget that afternoon by the lake.